“What happened to Bill?” Martin demanded as he faced the Squire, in all Philip’s indolent splendour.
Phillip was staring at Martin in serene repose. Humouring him. They had retired to this room, the same one they had previously conversed in. He sat enthroned among his silken cushions. Beside him, equally reclined, was a teenager, John. He was unmasked and he was eating from a tray of pastries and candied fruits that a servant was offering.
John looked familiar to Martin, though he knew he had not seen him in Hypnos. He was tall, with a mess of carrot hair on his lank, bony frame and sharp face. He looked supremely unworried, almost bored. And Philip looked at Martin without interest, as though Martin had become dull overnight. He dismissed Martin’s question with a languid wave.
“You know what happened to him.” He replied. A servant offered him a pastry, small and delicate and filled with a succulent meat paste that oozed its juices down his chin as he bit into it delicately. Martin’s stomach turned and the servant offered the tray to him. Martin shook his head stiffly and the servant withdrew.
“Oh, don’t worry yourself about the pastries. There’s nothing in them you haven’t eaten many times before.” He gave a supercilious smile. And Martin realised Philip was playing with him. He hadn’t called him ‘dear’, or ‘dearest friend’, or any of his other epithets.
“I haven’t…I can’t have…”
“You seem concerned,” Philip observed. “We can’t have that now can we. We can’t have anyone concerned in Hypnos.”
“Is Bill…Is he in…”
“Oh my word…are you seriously asking me whether I’m eating your friend?” His eyes rounded in mock horror. He picked another succulent pasty from the servant’s tray. Martin could not speak.
“Dear me no. I would never eat Bill.” Martin blinked, relief showing on his face.
“Then…” he asked.
“Much too old for me. I only eat the choicest foods.” He smiled. “The finest ingredients.”
“This meat is from someone much younger.” Philip went on. “Much more tender.”
“Martin, old man. You seem shocked. As though there was something wrong with me fulfilling my desires. Remember, my dear fellow. It is only a dream after all.”
“But, human flesh….”
“Is meat like any other.” John answered in reply. “Why should you worry. You seem to think the human body is, what, sacred?” He gave a short laugh. “What is sacred about it? What makes it different from any other flesh, any other animal?”
Martin couldn’t answer, for he knew any answer would be sneered at as an irrational delusion. And he knew he would too, for he did not believe in any answer. Yet still he could not accept their words. Still he found himself rebelling silently, helplessly against their implacable logic.
“Reason, Martin, reason is the key. If there is no observable reason not to do something then we should be able to do it. And if a body is dead, why then, why shouldn’t the flesh be used for our enjoyment. I myself have ordered that a feast be held by my family when I stop breathing. That I should be placed whole upon the dining table and all my friends and relatives ordered to tuck in.” Martin stared at him, incredulous.
“And they’ll do it, you know. The Brights have never been backward in coming forward. Never ones to shirk the opportunity to make an example. To illustrate what is real and what is not.”
Philip’s free hand reached out and mussed John’s hair like a proud uncle. “A fine example too my boy. You’re a fine pupil.” He turned to Martin. “He likes to talk as well, my dear John. But unlike some people, he listens and takes in what he hears. He doesn’t get confused and starts rejecting my gifts.” His voice was humourless now. Martin could not answer.
“I noticed you weren’t at my party the other night. Not good enough for you I take it. You think you are beyond such things now. You have some higher moral code you’ve just invented I expect. We get that sort of thing here as well you know. It doesn’t last long. These people who place themselves on a pedestal and try and lord it over us. That kind of thing is what most of us came here to escape, among other things.”
“I’m not…I just want to know…”
“What…what happened to Bill. What happens to us all. What does it mean?” Martin stumbled over the questions.
“What does it matter? Bill is gone and his body is gone. He will be forgotten just as my dear father was forgotten, just as many others are forgotten. So many others. The dream continues and what do the people we meet matter when our sleeping minds no longer think of them.”
“But Bill died…”
“And his body stayed. It didn’t fade away, it stayed. Some people removed him. Who were they…I mean, I think I’ve seen them before. On the edges, carrying things, bringing more wine…”
Philip snapped his fingers suddenly. From the back of the room a slit opened in the drapes and a young boy crept silently from the folds of cloth. He came and squatted beside Phillip’s side as the man placed a huge palm on the boy’s hair and ran his fingers through his locks. Martin shivered as he saw the dull, cow-look in the boy’s eyes. He didn’t even flinch as he was stroked.
“Slaves, dear heart, just slaves. You don’t think this town could go on without them do you. I order them in along with all the rest of our little luxuries. These servants that attend me, you don’t think I bother to pay them do you? So much easier to purchase slaves. They perform all the menial tasks and…other things for us.
“And they remove the bodies when people have woken up. Just keeping the place tidy. Someone has to think of these things. The townspeople refuse to look at a body who wakes”
He smiled. “Of course, I talk about them as though they were real, which is of course ridiculous. They’re no more real than anything else.”
“But…” Martin tried to think. “If they are people we’ve made up…I mean whose dream is this?”
“Your’s, ours, mine. All or some or nothing. Perhaps none of this is real and all just your own personal dream. Perhaps I’m not real, you’ve just imagined I exist.” He chuckled. “But I would be surprised if someone as confused as you had the imagination to imagine someone as delightful as me.”
“I don’t understand. Is this my dream? Is this reality? What is Hypnos?”
“Hypnos is dream. If life is a stage then Hypnos is backstage, where everyone tries on different masks and tries to remember what their next lines are. And everyone ignores the dead body on the stage, everyone ignores the funeral on stage that is being acted out by actors for an unseen audience. An audience that is silent and doesn’t clap or cheer or boo or even heckle. An audience everyone is starting to suspect isn’t even there.
“It’s the same scene that has been done so many times and no one backstage cares, they care about a quick drink, a pie, maybe time for a fumble in the corner before its time for their next scene. And the dead bodies that litter the stage are wheeled off into the wings and don’t return until the curtain call. The curtain call that never comes. Because there’s no audience to see it. No one to clap and say ‘good show, I almost believed it was real’.
“We have invented an audience because otherwise the play would be pointless and we’d all give up. And the stage would become just like it is in the wings, with no one watching. And for some people this terrifies them. But in Hypnos we know this, in Hypnos we bring the backstage into the light, we no longer pretend it’s a break between scenes, we know it is the scene, the only one that actually matters.”
“But we don’t invent the stage, we don’t make it up. These are other people. Real people. It’s not a dream, its reality. It’s not a stage, its life. You can’t enslave people, you can’t eat them.”
“Because it’s wrong.”
“I disagree.” Philip smiled, that supercilious smile. He was enjoying himself now, Martin’s outburst seemed to light a fire in his eyes. Martin suddenly realised Philip was angry. But he was smiling, entertained at his own anger.
“There is no law but mine.” Philip said. “No reason but my own. No pleasure I care for but mine, no code I follow but whatever I desire to be. And no one can tell me otherwise. And I extend that freedom to everyone who wishes it. A free gift to everyone.
“And you spurn that gift, for no other reason than you find it distasteful. You think your own morality allows you to criticize mine. You think your own negativity and loathing should impinge on my pleasure.” He smiled even broader than ever, his teeth gleaming in the soft light of candles and crystal. “I disagree. And I will not allow your primitive morality to impinge upon anyone else’s”
“But I wanted answers.” Martin pleaded.
“Answers, you came to Hypnos for answers?”
“I came to Hypnos for peace.”
“Peace is action without consequence, peace is not having to worry about rules and foolish delusions of retribution from unseen gods or demons, as though there is a difference between the two. Peace is the ignorance of anything that does not affect you.”
“I can’t ignore it. I need to know what death is. It isn’t just meaningless end, it has a purpose, it has a reason.” Martin leapt to his feet. “I can’t just ignore it.”
And Philip rose like a mountain from his silks and drapery. He rose to his full height, his blue eyes glaring. His slaves fell back in terror, flinching from expected violence. Even John looked disconcerted for a moment.
“Sit down,” he snapped, his voice cold, his mouth blood red, his eyes blue as ice. His whole body resonating with repressed violence. “You think I care what you want, what you can and can’t accept. You posture and whine because we don’t pander to your archaic morality and now you demand we bow to your holier-than-thou ideals.
“You don’t exist to me. I humoured your stupidity because you amused me. Now…now you’re starting to irritate me. This is our paradise and you whine and pout because you want to moralise and no one wants to play with you.”
And Martin quailed before the fury inherent in the Squire’s face. He almost sat down, he almost gave up and accepted it. He almost let himself sink into the silks and give up his questions, give up his worries and concerns.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He stepped back instead and fled the room.
Martin ran to Molly’s house, the only place he could think of. He could hear the wind now. It was gathering in intensity. He could have avoided it, he could have stayed in the Squire’s house and drowned it out with liquor and girls. He could have sang drunkenly at the top of his voice and plunged back into Hypnos with such vigour that he would never have heard the wind again, would never have remembered that there was a moor.
But he hadn’t, he had ran. And now the wind was louder than ever, insistent against the windowpanes. The Town was still dark, sunrise nowhere near. The stars were hidden with the moon, everywhere was pitch black. Molly’s house was empty, she was still with whoever she had gone off with. Whichever man she thought would save her from whatever she heard in the wind, whatever she saw if her eyes accidently caught sight of the moor. She would hide in that man’s arms and Martin knew she would find comfort there, as he had found comfort in so many women’s. For a time.
The darkness was complete. And then, a light at the edge of town. Martin looked up, hoping it was the day. Everything would look better in the day. He could collect his thoughts. Apologise to the Squire. Perhaps get a lift with one of the wagons that would arrive. He could set off, search for answers elsewhere. The wagon driver could give him directions.
But the light was not soft and golden. It was harsh and red. It flickered and grew and became many. They came, with dark red flames and twisted faces calling for his blood. Torches, blazing fire. And the Townspeople were coming, waving their hatred for him and calling his name.
He fell back from the window, terrified. They couldn’t, why would they. But he knew. He knew now why they would. Why Molly would be among them, shouting as loudly as Esme and John. He knew why she needed to as much as she needed to take the bed of that stranger. He could not blame them, for hadn’t he done the same, so many nights now.
He could not remember how long he had carried on in this place. Hypnos and Pasithea, the twin towns of levity and lassitude. He had smelled poppies when he had arrived and been found half in the river and half out. The Greeks believed that the waters of Lethe bestowed the gift of forgetfulness. Perhaps that was why he only half remembered, why he only half forgot what lay out on the moor. Why the wind of the moor outside was still so harsh for him.
Pain, flames and choking smoke as the fire of his neighbours caught the lathes, and the house went up like a torch. And he pushed past the flames that burned, numb with fear as he fled the burning house.
He fell helpless before the feet of his neighbours as he stumbled out of the pyre they had made for him. And they tore the smouldering rags from his back and beat him with their hands and with their feet and with sticks.
They ripped his hair and spat in his face and kicked him across the street until he was a mess of bruises and blood and he thought he had long ago died. And perhaps he had. And they screamed insults in his battered face and stamped on his skull and whipped him until he managed to crawl out from under their feet, barely conscious, barely alive, without even the clothes on his back, escaping through the flames and the insults and his blood dark black on the boots of his friends.
And they grabbed him by his hair and by his arms and dragged him out onto the moor, past the river, keeping the torchlight bright in a circle about them so that they did not have to look at the empty expanse they were on the edge of.
They cast him down from their paradise and left him to die, exposed upon the moor as the wind blew up like a hurricane upon his anguished face.
And the torches left, and the light fell and went. And he lay alone upon the unsheltered moor, weeping aloud as the wind spoke to him in words he thought he recognised. Battered, beaten and alone, the wind claiming him again for itself.